by Brad Cobb
AFTER HIS FATHER DIED of a bad liver and meanness, the boy scraped together enough money for a bus ticket out west where he planned to get a job as a ranch hand, though he had no experience and had never ridden a horse.
On the night he left, there were no tears from sweethearts. There was neither family nor friend to ask him to stay, and he had never felt more destitute or devoid of hope. Never had the night seemed blacker or more consuming.
Along the way the bus pulled into an isolated station that had a little cafe on the side of the terminal. He sat at the counter and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, a grilled cheese sandwich and coffee.
The waitress was a pretty, vivacious woman. She called out his order to the cook, who said something funny, and then she countered with something comical as well. The dishwasher chimed in with silly things from the back, lifting his smiling face. It appeared the three shared an inside joke, for every so often the dishwasher would show his face and say, “I got to remember to tell Momma that one,” and they would all roar.”
Their laughter sounded so pure and free from care. To the boy they seemed like they were the happiest family there ever was, and he wondered what it would be like to spend Christmas there in the café with all their banter and ease and warmth.
More than anything he would have liked to join in with their joking, but this seemed an impossibility.
The curious notion swam through his mind that this was the most wonderful place on earth, that in this place and nowhere else was true happiness. Everything would always be beautiful here. Not out west and certainly not back home, but right here.
He looked around to see if any of the other passengers bore witness to the magic and wonder, but they appeared strangely unmoved.
I’ll just say here, he told himself. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just stay here.
He asked God to give him this one little thing, just this one, and never again would he ask for anything.
After a while the bus driver’s voice came over a speaker announcing the departure for points west, and the boy was struck with a miserable panic, as though he had been told the world was coming to an end. Maybe he hadn’t heard right, he thought, but the insistent voice repeated itself.
There was a gift shop in the corner with a rack of postcards and a machine that made smashed pennies. There was a curio cabinet, and he walked over and stood before it, quietly examining the souvenirs. He wanted to stand there forever. He didn’t think they would mind. If anything was said, he would tell them that he wouldn’t bother a soul, that he would be so quiet no one would even know he was there.
Once again the driver’s voice announced their imminent departure, the final warning.
The boy opened the cabinet and took out a tiny rose-colored dog made of thin glass and laid it in his palm. It was hollow and seemed so fragile that he thought it might crumble to nothing if touched in the wrong way. He took it to the cash register.
The waitress came over. “Hank, how much is this?” she asked the cook, pointing at the boy’s outstretched palm.
“Hell, I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s been here for a coon’s age.
She leaned in and whispered to the boy like the was imparting a great secret. “I’ll tell you what, Sugar. You can just have it.”
He gave a nod of thanks and thought he should say something. He came within a hair’s breadth of repeating the inside joke- I’ll have to remember to tell Momma that one- but the words were stubborn and unsure from within in.
He nodded once more , and the waitress patted his head, winked and said, “No big thing, Sug,” and she looked a him with clear blue eyes, and she told him she had better get something to put it in so it wouldn’t break. She asked the cook if they had anything, and he said he wasn’t sure but would check, and the dishwasher’s good natured face popped up in the kitchen’s opening like a target in a shooting gallery, and he said that he, too, would help.
They found a matchbox, and the waitress lined the inside with a tissue from her purse. She carefully took the figure from him and laid it inside, then slid the box shut and handed it back.
“There!” she said with finality. “All done.” She told him he had better hurry.
Just before he had left, he turned to look back, and they all waved, and the dishwasher said bon voyahgee, and then he said, “I got to remember to tell Momma that one,” but the door closing behind the boy cut off the beautiful and unaffected laughter that must have followed.
He walked out of the terminal and through a cloud of mosquitoes and diesel fumes. He took his seat, and the bus pulled away, engulfed once more by the night.
The boy switched on the dim reaching light above his seat and slowly opened the matchbox, which suddenly seemed to him like a coffin. He looked down at the tiny, delicate statuette for a long time, sitting very still, his eyes as fixed as the stars in the heavens, listening to the engine hum in its determination to press him on, ever forward, into darkness.